Welcome to Tent City, the homeless camp of Dale City, Virginia.
It’s just 25 miles from Washington, D.C., hidden along the forest of Dale Boulevard. Minutes away from the shopping and dining epicenter of Prince William County sits a neighborhood not many are familiar with much less, ever heard of. Tent City. I took a journey into this unknown territory to speak with its residents and discover what life is like for a small dozens of the hundreds of homeless in one of the wealthiest counties of Virginia.
Upon first entering I received glares acquainted only with the roar of vehicles coming from the always busy I-95 that is less than a mile away. The silence was broken by an older man yelling, “You look too clean to be here.” At this moment, I didn’t know whether to laugh or turn back. I informed them that I was there for a story and in exchange, I’d give any help I could offer. My introduction was less than ideal but was enough to get me so called “right of passage” an outsider needs to enter into this community.
I walked through this area nearing almost 50 acres. Flags, various banners, old carpets, and tents consumed the space. The only thing I could compare it with was something seem out of an post apocalypse movie or video game. The first gentleman I spoke to, who chose to remain nameless, is 38 years old and has been living here for the last three years. “I don’t know how it happened … Nobody’s goal in life is to be homeless… I was a regular guy then one day my life started crumbling before I knew it, I was here.” The man was very open about his experiences and seemed somewhat eager to show me his living space. He showed me his tent and explained how there might be anywhere between 10 to 18 in one tent. “It’s not much but it’s home,” he stated. Continuing through his area, he showed me a grill he said, “The funny thing about this grill is that its never cooked any food, only to start fires when it gets cold.”
The second person who was open to speaking with me was a 28-year-old woman, Destiny Grear, who has been a resident of the community for the last year. “This is my 3rd camp, there’s tons of em’ around here…”Unless you’re out here you don’t know how hard it is in the forest. All you’re ever worried about is just surviving, just getting by … People really don’t think this is real but it is.” Destiny said she has tried going to different types of shelters in the area but explained how you can only be there so long until you are forced to relocate. “I’ve been homeless since I was 23. Nobody could comprehend how hard it is for a young female to have to live like this … I’ve had to do things I’m not proud of at all sometimes you run out of options and make bad choices, that’s how you end up here I could I gone to school and done what I was supposed too, that’s my burden to carry everybody goes through stuff this the hand I’ve been dealt I don’t blame anybody.”
The last two individuals I spoke to that really struck a cord with me was a couple. Christopher and Donna Wise were once normal happy homeowners in Woodbridge,Virginia. “I grew up since I was a little girl went to Garfield High School, was a homeowner all my life then lost my home to foreclosure, my husband lost his job and couldn’t find any work that was the preamble… It sounds crazy, one day you got everything and the next, you’re dying for just a shower. ”
Day to day life for these people consist of holding a sign asking for any spare change. One resident said he’d be lucky to get $5 in a week’s time. What amazed me the most was the diversity of the community people of all backgrounds, all walks of life called this tent city home. Everyone I spoke to shared one thing in common they said they do anything for just some fresh water or a night without having to rummage through a dumpster for something to eat. People as young as 18 and as old as 58 are living in conditions that would barely be acceptable in some third world countries. Even through these hardships every member of this community was just that, part of a community. Everyone looked out for one another and through a bad situation became a family. Still fighting day after day. These people have to endure through freezing winters and scorching summers year after year. Somehow, whether through perseverance or an ever-lasting ounce of optimism they held their head high. Self-aware of their pain but strong enough and unwilling to express it.
For me personally, sometimes the hardest part of my day is finding something to watch on Netflix and its luxuries that are taken for granted every day. In Prince William County alone, there are reportedly over 500 people who are homeless. Most of us, I think, don’t take the time to even consider how real of an issue it is here in Northern Virginia new restaurants and stores are being built at an staggering rate and what will happen when these make-shift wooded camps for the homeless are eventually torn through in order to build the next apartment complex? If I want there to be any takeaway from this article apart from raising awareness, is next time you see someone in need of help, don’t be afraid to lend a helping hand. You just don’t know what they could be going through the residents of Tent City I spoke to said the hardest thing to find was simply help. The first thing that’s seen when coming into Dale City is a welcome sign that reads The Friendliest Little Town Around. Maybe its time we start acting on that motto a little more.